Steamboat Springs Steamboat Ski Area will unveil horse-drawn sleigh rides at the city-owned Haymaker Golf Course this winter.
Steamboat Vice President of Skier Services Jim Schneider told a group of business people gathered for the Chamber’s Business Outlook Breakfast on Wednesday that the ski area’s food and beverage department did well as the concessionaire at the golf course during the summer.
“We had a good experience at Haymaker over the summer and look forward to continue doing things there over the winter,” Schneider said.
A ride in a sleigh pulled by large draft horses under a winter sky, with passengers nestled under heavy blankets, is among the memorable excursions that can add to the winter vacation experience in Steamboat. It’s the Rocky Mountain version of a Currier and Ives engraving. It’s also one of a variety of activities, from hot air balloon flights to snowmobile tours and soaking in a natural hot spring, that capture more revenue from winter guests and boost the wintertime payroll in the valley.
The ski area also offers sleigh ride dinners that leave from the upper gondola terminal to Ragnar’s restaurant at Rendezvous Saddle, but the sleighs are pulled by diesel snowcats — no jingling of sleigh bells.
And there are other dinner sleigh ride excursions offered by independent operators, often booked through the ski area’s Central Reservations service. Typically, those trips take place in ranch country, a little farther out of town than Haymaker, which is just outside city limits.
The others sleigh ride operations that can be booked through Central Reservations include Saddleback Ranch south of Milner, the Elk River Guest Ranch northeast of Clark and Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse near Steamboat Lake. Travelers can book their activities at the ski area’s website at the same time they book airplane tickets and lodging as well as rent skis and purchase lift tickets. Central Reservations collects a commission from the independent operators.
Ski Area spokesman Mike Lane said he wouldn't expect the addition of the sleigh rides at Haymaker to take away from what independent sleigh ride operations are doing.
"Saddleback and Elk River do a fantastic job and have a very strong reputation," Lane said.
Saddleback’s Wayne Iacovetto said his sleigh ride business relies on Central Reservations for about only 5 to 10 percent of its business. Still, he is concerned that the ski area’s new sleigh ride would take away from his revenue.
Pat Karschner, general manager at Elk River Guest Ranch with his wife, Vicki, said his dinner sleigh ride operations are much more dependent upon Central Reservations. This fall, the number of advance reservations coming to Elk River is seven times the number that the ranch has generated itself.
“It came as somewhat of a surprise to us,” Karschner said. “To think it’s not going to have an effect on us and Hahn’s Peak and Saddleback would be overly optimistic.”
Routt County Planning Director Chad Phillips confirmed the food and beverage operation at Haymaker operates under a special-use permit. Ski area officials came to him this fall to ensure the sleigh ride was permissible. Phillips said that after reviewing the existing special-use permit and checking with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to determine whether there were any wildlife conflicts (elk sometimes gather on the golf course in winter), he issued the permit administratively.
Phillips said the ski area is approved for as many as three sleigh rides of 20 people nightly. The ski area’s website indicates that there will be two sleigh rides nightly except for times when demand warrants a third. A shuttle van will make scheduled stops in downtown, at the ski base and on U.S. Highway 40 on the way to Haymaker. The sleigh will be kept at the golf course, but the draft horses will be delivered to the site daily in a trailer, Phillips said. A snowcat will be used to pack the sleigh course.
Iacovetto predicted that based on past customer feedback, Central Reservations will try to fill the Haymaker sleigh rides first. He added that Central Reservations takes a 17 percent commission on sleigh ride dinners it books on behalf of Saddleback. Iacovetto added that about 30 percent of his annual business is attributable to repeat customers.
Lane said Central Reservations' staff always has asked prospective guests questions intended to determine, in a fair way, what activities best meet their needs.
"Steamboat Central Reservations has always been fair in representing the various activities, lodging and rental components of a winter vacation. I don't see that changing, and it isn't different from what they have been doing for many years. Steamboat Central Reservation's main goal is to work with the guest to find the vacation experience the guest is dreaming of and delivering on that dream."
Karschner, whose operation is 20 miles from Steamboat, said the ski area has a clear advantage in its close proximity to town: Customers will spend significantly less time in transit. His prices are $95 for adults and $45 for children, the same rates the ski area will charge at Haymaker.
“Our advantage is the uniqueness of what we offer,” Karschner said. “We’re in a real mountain setting, and we serve appetizers and drinks in a saloon. We serve dinner in teepees warmed by a freestanding wood-burning fireplace and a propane heater."
Saddleback Ranch has a niche with daylight sleigh rides that offer a mug of hot cocoa, but no meal, and cost significantly less ($40) than a dinner sleigh ride for people who want to see and photograph the team of draft horses and the surroundings better than they could at night.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com